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Science Policy Around the Web – March 06, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

Source: pixabay

Technology and Health

Is That Smartphone Making Your Teenager’s Shyness Worse?

The development of new technologies, especially computers and smartphones, has greatly changed people’s lifestyles. People can telework without going to offices, and shop online without wandering in stores. While this has brought about convenience, it has also generated many adverse effects. People tend to spend more time with their devices than with their peers. Parents of shy teenagers ask, “Is that smartphone making my teenager’s shyness worse?”

Professor Joe Moran, in his article in the Washington Post, says that the parents’ concern is reasonable. The Stanford Shyness Survey, which was started by Professor Philip Zimbardo in the 1970s, found that “the number of people who said they were shy had risen from 40 percent to 60 percent” in about 20 years. He attributed this to new technology like email, cell phones and even ATMs. He even described such phenomena of non-communication as the arrival of “a new ice age”.

Contrary to Professor Zimbardo’s claims, other findings showed that the new technology provided a different social method. As an example, teenagers often use texting to express their love without running into awkward situations. Texting actually gives them time and space to digest and ponder a response. Further, Professor Moran said that the claim of Professor Zimardo was made before the rise of social networks;  shy teenagers can share their personal life online even if they don’t talk in public. He also talks about the paradox of shyness, where shyness is caused by “our strange capacity for self-attention”, while “we are also social animals that crave the support and approval of the tribe.” Therefore, new technologies are not making the shyness worse, in contrast social networks and smartphones can help shy teenagers find new ways to express that contradiction. (Joe Moran, Washington Post)


Biologists Propose to Sequence the DNA of All Life on Earth

You may think that it is impossible to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth, but at a meeting organized by the Smithsonian Initiative on Biodiversity Genomics and the Shenzhen, China-based sequencing powerhouse BGI, researchers announced their intent to start the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP). The news was reported in Science. There are other ongoing big sequencing projects such as the UK Biobank, which aims to sequence the genomes of 500,000 individuals.

The significance of the EBP will greatly help “understand how life evolves”, says Oliver Ryder, a conservation biologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in California. Though the EBP researchers are still working on many details, they propose to carry out this project in three steps. Firstly, they plan to sequence the genome of a member of each eukaryotic family (about 9000 in all) in great detail as reference genomes. Secondly, they would sequence species from each of the 150,000 to 200,000 genera to a lesser degree. Finally, the sequencing task will be expanded to the 1.5 million remaining known eukaryotic species with a lower resolution, which can be improved if needed. As suggested by EBP researchers, the eukaryotic work might be completed in a decade.

There are many challenges to starting this project. One significant challenge is sampling, which requires international efforts from developing countries, particularly those with high biodiversity. The Global Genome Biodiversity Network could supply much of the DNA needed, as it is compiling lists and images of specimens at museums and other biorepositories around the world. As not all DNA samples in museum specimens are good enough for high-quality genomes, getting samples from the wild would be the biggest challenge and the highest cost. The EBP researchers also need to develop standards to ensure high-quality genome sequences and to record associated information for each species sequenced. (Elizabeth Pennisi, ScienceInsider)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 6, 2017 at 8:41 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 6, 2017

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By: Aaron Rising, PhD

Source: Flickr


Do You Want to Be a Superhero? Your Electronics Might Be Able to Get You a Little Closer to Being ‘Wolverine’!

In a recent communication in the journal Advanced Material, and summarized in The Christian Science Monitor, researchers have designed a conductive material that has quite a number of uncanny attributes. It consists of polarized, stretchable, polymer chains that are connected via ion-dipole interactions. This material stretches well, tolerating “extreme strains exceeding 5000%”, has high electrical conductivity, and is practically invisible.

What makes this material even more Incredible and Amazing is its ability to completely heal in 24 hours at room temperature. If cut with scissors, the ends will reconnect like new when placed in close proximity to one another. In talking with the Monitor, a co-author, Christopher Keplinger, described how we could go from metal robots like in Transformers to ones that look more like Data from Star Trek. “What you usually imagine is a metallic, clumsy piece of hardware that you would not want to have near yourself for any sort of collaboration or interaction – the mismatch in mechanics with the robot being hard and the human body being soft makes direct contact dangerous. Now imagine a new class of robots that are based on soft, elastic materials, being powered by stretchable electronic circuits and thus much more closely resemble the elegant design of biology.”

While these materials won’t make you invincible or heal like Wolverine they may make your cellphone or computer a little better at fighting crime or perhaps surviving being dropped. For a more global importance, this new material would allow for more suitable robotic human aids and caretakers. The use of robotic caretakers and companions has a rather large implication in both the health and the manufacturing sectors of our economy. (Joseph Dussault, The Christian Science Monitor)


A New Human Organ

We all know the major organs in our body, the heart, brain, lungs, stomach, etc. In fact, for well over 100 years medicine has stated we have 78 organs in total. These organs have been discussed and described in modern textbooks such as the 40th edition of “Gray’s Anatomy” published in 2008. The editors of the prestigious textbook have revised the most recent version as a new organ called the mesentery has been found. It is located in and around the abdomen.

While discussed as early as 1885 by Dr. Frederick Treves and described as far back as 1508 by Leonardo da Vinci, the mesentery is a lining of the abdominal cavity that attaches to the intestine. This lining is what keeps the intestines in place in our gut. Treves described the mesentery ‘existed only sporadically, in disjointed ribbons, dispersed among the intestines and therefore did not meet the definition of an organ’. And as such was not and has not been classified as one of the 78 organs.

Two Irish scientists, however, disagreed and have claimed that the mesentery was not correctly categorized. According to Dr. J Calvin Coffey and Dr. D Peter O’Leary in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, the mesentery can really be described as a single and continuous tissue and thus can be classified as an organ. First summarized in the Independent and subsequently in Discovery Magazine and The Washington Post, the new organ’s function isn’t entirely understood. Talking to the Independent Dr. Coffey said, “Now we have established anatomy and the structure. The next step is the function. If you understand the function you can identify abnormal function, and then you have disease. Put them all together and you have the field of mesenteric science.”

This new discovery opens up the possibility that some gastrointestinal ailments that have previously been associated with one organ, such as the stomach, may in fact be more aligned with the mesentery. Because the function of the mesentery is largely unknown, drug companies have a new target to test drugs and academic and government research groups have a complete new system to study. How to appropriately tackle the funding and attention this new organ and the emerging ‘mesenteric science’ will receive is just now being examined. (Tom Embury-Dennis, Independent)

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January 6, 2017 at 1:17 pm

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Entrusting Your Life to Binary: The Increasing Popularity of Robotics in the Operating Room

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By: Sterling Payne, B.Sc.

Source: Flickr; by Medical Illustration, Welcome Images, under Creative Commons

       Minimally invasive surgery has been around since the late 20th century, however, technological advancement has sent robotic surgeons to the forefront of medicine in the past 20 years. The term “minimally invasive” refers to the performance of a surgery through small, precise incisions a far distance away from the target, thus having less of a physical impact on the patient in terms of pain and recovery times. As one can imagine, surgeons must use small instruments during a minimally invasive procedure and operate with a high-level of control in order to perform a successful operation. In light of these requirements, and due to fast-paced advances in robotics in the last decade, robots have become more common in the operating room. Though their use benefits all parties involved if used correctly, several questions of policy accompany the robotic advance and the goal of fully autonomous surgery.

The da Vinci system is one of the most popular devices used for minimally invasive surgeries, and was approved by the FDA in 2000 for use in surgical procedures. The newest model, the da Vinci Xi® System, includes four separate robotic arms that operate a camera and multiple arrays of tools. The camera projects a 3D view of the environment onto a monitor for the surgeon, who in turn operates the other 3 arms to perform highly precise movements. The da Vinci arms and instruments allow the surgeon more control over the subject via additional degrees of freedom (less restricted movement), and features such as tremor reduction.

Though the da Vinci system is widely used, its success still depends on the skill and experience of the operator. Surgical robotics engineer Azad Shademan and colleagues acknowledged this in a recent publication in Science, highlighting their successful design, manufacturing, and use of the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR). The STAR contains a complex imaging system for tracking the dynamic movement of soft tissue, as well as a custom algorithm that allows the robot to perform a fully autonomous suturing procedure. Azad and colleagues demonstrated the effectiveness of their robot by having it perform various stitching procedures on non-living pig tissue in an open surgical setting. Not only did the STAR succeed in both procedures, it outperformed highly experienced surgeons that it was pitted against. More information on the STAR can be found here.

In response to the da Vinci system, Google recently announced Verb Surgical, a joint-venture company with Johnson & Johnson. Verb aims to create “a new future, a future unimagined even a few years ago, which will involve machine learning, robotic surgery, instrumentation, advanced visualization, and data analytics”. Whereas the da Vinci system helps the surgeon perform small, precise, movements, Verb will use artificial intelligence amongst other technologies to augment the surgeon’s view, providing information such as anatomy and various boundaries of bodies such as tumors. A procedure assisted by the da Vinci system can increase the physical dexterity and mobility of the surgeon, however, Verb aims to achieve that and give a “good” surgeon the knowledge and thinking modalities previously confined to expert surgeons gathered over time through hundreds of surgeries. In a way, Verb could level the playing field in more ways than one, allowing all surgeons access to a vast knowledge base accumulated through machine learning.

As proven by the introduction of fully self-driving cars by Tesla in October, autonomous robots are becoming integrated into society; surgery is no exception. A 2014 paper in the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics states that we can apply Isaac Asimov’s (author of I, Robot) three laws of robotics to robot-assisted surgery “if we acknowledge that the autonomy resides in the surgeon”. However, the policy discussion for fully autonomous robot surgeons is still emergent. In the case of malpractice, the doctor performing the operation is usually the responsible party. When you replace the doctor with an algorithm, where does the accountability lie? When a robot surgeon makes a mistake, one could argue that the human surgeon failed to step in when necessary or supervise the surgery adequately. One could also argue logically that the manufacturers should claim responsibility for a malfunction during an automated surgery. Other possibilities include the programmer(s) who designed the algorithms (like the stitching algorithm featured in the STAR), as well as the hospital housing the robot. This entry from a clinical robotics law blog highlights the aforementioned questions from a litigator’s standpoint.

A final talking-point amidst the dawn of autonomous surgical technology is the safeguarding of wireless connections to prevent “hacking” or unintended use of the machine during telesurgery. Telesurgery refers to the performance of an operation by a surgeon who is physically separated from the patient by a long distance, accomplished through wireless connections, at times open and unsecured. In 2015, a team of researchers at the University of Washington addressed the weaknesses of the procedure by hacking into a teleoperated surgical robot, the Raven II. The attacks highlighted vulnerabilities by flooding the robot with useless data, thus making intended movements less fluid, even forcing an emergency stop mechanism. Findings such as this will help with the future development and security of teleoperated surgical robots, their fully autonomous counterparts, and the policy which binds them.

When a web browser or computer application crashes, we simply hit restart, relying on autosave or some other mechanism to preserve our previous work. Unlike a computer, a human has no “refresh” button; any wrongful actions that harm the patient cannot be reversed, placing a far greater weight on all parties involved when a mistake is made. As it stands, the policy discussion for accountable, autonomous robots and algorithms is gaining much-needed momentum as said devices inch their way into society.

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November 24, 2016 at 9:00 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – October 28, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

Source: Flickr, under Creative Commons

Technology and Health

Can You Please Pass the iPad?

As digital media screens have become more prevalent, doctors have warned parents of its negative impact on developing minds. In 1999, screen time was first addressed, with doctors mandating that no screen time was recommended for children under age 2.   The argument goes that children need parents present in real-time to interact with to develop the ability to read social cues and engage on a personal level.

Now the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has dictated that one hour per day of high-quality educational screen time may be allowed for children between 2 and 5 years of age. For children 18 months to 2 years, some screen time is ok as long as a parent is actively engaged and watching with the child. This is especially relieving for parents of children who have relatives far away who use Skype or FaceTime to communicate. Although this is technically screen time, it does benefit children with those important social interactions and reading facial and vocal cues.

Overall the goal of the AAP is to ensure that media is used in a mindful way, not to replace social interactions but to enhance family discussions and provide supplementary education material for older age groups. They also recommend media-free family time to ensure children develop a healthy relationship with technology. Jenny Radesky, MD, FAAP and lead author for the statement said, “What’s most important is that parents be their child’s media mentor. That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn.” In relation to screen time rules, it seems the amount of parent involvement and moderation are the keys to success. (AAP)

Mental Health Research

New Director of National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH)

NIMH has a tall order to fill: bridge the gap from the breakneck speed of basic neuroscience research advances to bring solid and reliable treatments to the clinic. Last month NIMH welcomed a new director, Dr. Joshua Gordon, to take the helm and direct the institute toward a balance between these two priorities. After 19 years as a faculty member at Columbia University, Gordon hopes to bring his experience as both a clinician and a researcher to achieve this delicate result.

NIMH’s strategic plan for research was laid out in September, with four priorities highlighted to combat mental illness. These include describing mechanisms of complex behaviors, at the molecular, cellular, circuit and genetic levels. Second, characterizing mental illness trajectories to determine best intervention procedures and time points, which would include detecting biomarkers and understanding how behavior reflects neuropathology. Third, NIMH strives to marry tried and true existing treatments with new therapies which can be implemented in community settings, thus bringing help to patients. Finally, NIMH funded research must improve public health, with better clinician education about new treatments, and new service delivery models that can be implemented to reach more patients suffering from mental illness.

These are all monumental tasks but Gordon seems up for the challenge. In a recent Q&A session by Meredith Wadman of Science Magazine, he was asked about the op-ed pieces in the Washington Post and the New York Times by NIMH clinical psychiatrists where they accused previous director Thomas Insel of putting too much priority on basic research and letting clinical neuroscience fall by the wayside. Gordon replied by saying, “I think my first priority is good science. Where there are opportunities in psychiatry for short-term effects, we are going to try to take advantage of them. Absolutely. We’d be mad not to. We know so little about the brain, we have so few truly novel treatments in the pipeline that I’m all ears.” (NIH News Release)


Autism early intervention – help the parents, help their children

The plight of the working parent has become an important and almost bipartisan issue this election season. Politicians are proposing policies that will help families with paid family leave and some help with childcare costs, however there is a growing segment of people who desperately need even more help. Raising a child with autism is increasingly common, currently 1% of children and young people in the US are on the spectrum.

The cost of having an autistic child can be tremendous, with extra health care expenses, special equipment, classes and educational requirements. Often one parent must leave the workforce to care for their child as they require extensive and specialized care. Early interventions such as classes and therapy are thought to be effective for lessening the symptoms of autism, but until now the trials have been small and have had short end points. This week The Lancet published an article demonstrating that interventions aimed at educating parents of autistic children had long-term (up to 6 years) benefits. 152 children aged 2-4 years old were recruited to the study, with half given interventions that included therapy, monthly support and a parent-mediated 20-30 minute daily session of planned activities. The children who received this extra support reported lower levels of severe autism and had better teacher and parent assessed behaviors. However, the study did not find significant reductions in anxiety or depression or a language benefit.

This study demonstrates that providing education and resources for parents of autistic children are a worthwhile endeavor. Government resources are often aimed at providing services for the child, which are equally important. Parents armed with the proper educational tools can become personalized therapists for their children, which could reduce societal costs and improve outcomes. (Heidi Ledford, Nature)

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October 28, 2016 at 10:50 am

Synthetic Biology and Biodefense: Regulating the Unknown

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By Rebecca Cerio

The field of synthetic biology–most broadly described as the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature–has been quietly advancing ever since the discovery of restriction enzymes in the 1970s.  Being able to cut-and-paste DNA segments in combinations different than those created by nature opened the door to molecular biology and the burgeoning biotechnology field.  Such technologies, as well as our understanding of DNA functional and regulatory elements, now allow us to genetically engineer organisms to produce needed medicines, to bioengineer pest- and chemical-resistant food crops, and to sequence and study the genome of any organism for useful and harmful mutations.

Recently, the J. Craig Venter Institute’s announcement that they can chemically synthesize an entire, functional genome in the lab has led to new public awareness of the potential power, benefits, and dangers of synthetic biology.  One question raised is:  just because we can, does that mean that we should?
Or, from a regulatory standpoint, just because it is possible, should it be allowed?  Synthetic biology technology can be used for legitimate scientific purposes (i.e., producing vaccines) and to threaten public safety  (i.e., producing deadly pathogens).  But what are the actual, plausible risks and benefits of synthetic biology, beyond movie-plot scenarios and inflammatory rhetoric about “playing God”? Read the rest of this entry »

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November 4, 2011 at 9:19 am

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